In 1630, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, proclaimed to fellow Puritan settlers that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.”
Nearly four centuries later, Winthrop’s striking image has emerged a fixture of American political rhetoric, said Abram Van Engen, associate professor of English in Arts & Sciences. Van Engen teaches the class, “City on a Hill: The Concept and Culture of American Exceptionalism.”
“For both the left and the right, Winthrop’s sermon has become a foundational text,” said Van Engen, who also serves as principal investigator for the City on a Hill Archive. “But there is something a little odd about this origin: the Puritans themselves paid no attention to it. They never printed it or remarked on it; they didn’t take any notes, and they quickly lost all track of it.
“Only in the second half of the 20th century would it come to be seen as the ur-text of America — the vision that got the whole thing going.”
In this video, Van Engen discuss the history of Winthrop’s city on a hill, as well as its subsequent adoption by presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Follow Van Engen on Twitter @AbramVanEngen.